“My Tastes Don’t Evolve; They Broaden”: An Interview with Robert Christgau

Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics”, has been writing reviews and essays about music since 1967. He’s best known for his tenure at the Village Voice from 1969 until just recently, where he regularly penned Consumer Guides and oversaw the publication’s annual Pazz and Jop Poll. Christgau enjoys a celebrated reputation because he was one of the first journalists to write critically about rock music and culture, and he always stayed on the cutting edge of the changing music scene.

Over the telephone, Christgau comes off as arrogant and opinionated, but also charming and intelligent. He doesn’t mince words or suffer foolish opinions. Christgau challenges conventional wisdom and anecdotal evidence as easily as he offers his own diatribes and personal observations. He recently spoke with PopMatters on a variety of journalistic and musical topics. The Dean was generous with his comments, and frequently laughed during the conversation. He was serious, but he was not pretentious in his analysis of the current culture.

What are your thoughts on the state of newspapers today?

I don’t know why you are asking me this, but yeah sure, my impression is that people like to carry a paper around with them. Printed material that’s portable and burnable, I don’t think it’s going away soon. The fact that it has a component online doesn’t make it very different.

What about the decline of the newspapers as the single source of record for information? Are audiences too stratified or fragmented to rely on any individual source of popular media?

That’s a long-going story that has accelerated. I mean, the first column I wrote for the Village Voice in 1969 was called “Gap Again”, which was about the generation gap I perceived as existing, not between the old and the young, but between the three different generations of youth audiences. A year later, I wrote about the “Semipopular”, or the growth of a kind of music that had all the earmarks of popular music, except it wasn’t popular with a mass audience. Only certain people liked it. These two pieces form the cornerstone of my personal theory about music and culture. When I grew up, there was a monoculture. Everybody listened to the same music on the radio. I miss monoculture. I think it’s good for people to have a shared experience.

Isn’t this monoculture just another name for the canon?

Oh no, it’s larger and more inclusive than the canon. The canon has a hierarchy of taste that doesn’t exist in the monoculture. The monoculture is more hegemonic and shows a certain amount of instinctive, intuitive, reflective influence of its creation, whereas the canon tends to be somewhat more conscious. Right now there are so many different kinds of divisions in music. I wouldn’t want to try to list them now, because I am sure I’d forget some, but this Balkanization operates invidiously to separate us.

The tendency of American cultural theory for a long time, especially from a highbrow view, was to ignore the richness of the popular arts or to demonize, vulgarize, and vastly oversimplify the so-called mass culture. I spent the formative years of my career as a critic actually studying this and setting myself against it, and against the so-called mass culture theorists of the ’50s, which included many of my colleagues who belonged to the Frankfurt School. I think Theodore Adorno was profoundly ignorant. I think even Adorno’s fans think he was bad at understanding popular music. He thought it was all jazz. I will give it up to those who say Adorno was very smart, but he based certain aspects of his theories on the assumption that the pop aesthetic was a priori bad, which it isn’t.

In terms of Semipopular, the music audience is still divided and unaware of each other. It’s the same problem but worse. Go to a New York record store and there are 20 different kinds of alternative music. On the other hand, when I went to buy a Minuteman album, they were in there with the Kinks. To me, the ignorance of the young in music is a truly depressing spectacle. I mean, the phenomenal narrowness combined with totally unwarranted arrogance. I have made fun of it for a long time, but it’s gotten ridiculous.

Still, rock ‘n’ roll, like film, has become the subject of academic study by scholars and students. At the University of Iowa, for example, one can take courses in rock from the American Studies, Sociology, Communications, and Journalism departments.

But there in Iowa they pay $3,000 for people to teach them, and they don’t know shit. The situations of rock and film departments are very different. It doesn’t seem to have happened in the same way, and it seems to me it would have happened by now. We dodged a bullet there. [laughs] That’s my attitude. I mean, I teach in the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University. There is a major in popular music at the State University of New York at Oneida, where you enter a program in your freshman year to prepare for a career in the music business, and those are programs near my home in places where my daughter thought of applying to, so I am sure there are many others. Nevertheless, pop music has not achieved the inflated respectability of film.

On one hand, I find that troublesome. I have a high opinion of my own work and that of my best colleagues, and can’t help but be concerned. I think they deserve to be respected, and John Updike, Michiko Kakutani, and David Denby and critics like that who make me barf with their overblown stature. So that annoys me and offends me, but relative to the inchoate, unformulated, and unhierarchical state of popular music commentary, the worst you can say about it is that it is unprocessed thought.

Ah, speaking of which, what do you think of blogs?

I don’t have any thoughts on blogs, because I don’t read them. I don’t read them not out of any principle, but because there are only 24 hours in a day, and I like to read books. It’s on my to-do list to start reading a few blogs every day.

But wasn’t the first source of information about your recent firing at the Village Voice first reported on Gawker?

First, I e-mailed it to my friends, and second, Gawker is not a blog. It’s an online publication. It’s different. Blogs are one-person operations, in my opinion.

I said there is a positive factor to the inchoate state of rock rocking, but there is definitely a negative factor, which is information overload, a term I began to use in the ’70s, when we were barely post-Gutenberg, do you know what I mean? I mean the sheer quantity of information. There is no way a person can attempt to absorb it. It’s physically impossible by a factor of a 100,000, and I’m just talking about music.

So there are two possibilities, both of which will probably occur. One of which is that the level of incoherent ignorance will simply continue to emerge. On the other hand, there will be a kind of shakeout and new hierarchies will emerge. I’m not saying all these other publications won’t exist. Bloggers will continue to blog, but a few are going to rise from the pack, eventually, and they will come to have a certain kind of status that the other ones do not.

Do you find a difference between online writing versus print journalism?

The real difference in my mind is between good writing and bad writing. What helps change bad writing into mediocre writing is editing. Editing is in bad shape in print journalism, and is in virtually nonexistent shape in online journalism. I also think it tends to be true that when people get paid to do things, they do it better than when they don’t get paid to do it. It’s a broad generalization with many, many, many exceptions, but if you wanted to do some sort of mathematical analysis, that would be how it would work out, although that would be subjective, too. I trust my own expertise more than I trust most people’s.

Have your tastes changed during the years? Do you hear music differently now?

I am a good critic in that I don’t write about things until I know what I think of them. For me, it’s the essential part of my writing. For example, I listened to Polly Jean Harvey’s Stories of the City just last night, and then the great 1995 album To Bring You My Love, and at one time I would have told you Stories of the City was the better record, but now I’m pretty sure it’s To Bring You My Love, so it happens. My tastes don’t evolve; they broaden. That’s the thing that happens to me. I can go back and hear music I wasn’t able to hear and didn’t write about at all. Now I know what I think about it.

You once said Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso was your favorite record of all time. Is that still the case?

Sure, I’ll stand by that. I mean, all of these questions… I write about so much because I am blessed with a very healthy appetite for music, and because I am more interested in breadth and variety than I am in having intensive aesthetic experiences — that’s the democrat in me. My thought of the job, as far as I am concerned, is simulating real life listening conditions, which no critic who works in art actually is interested in. There’s a record on now as we are talking on the phone. There’s a record on in my house 12 to 18 hours a day. It’s so I can process it. It’s about acclimating my body-mind continuum, which means that the acclimatization process will have occurred so when I concentrate later I have a better notion of what I think. Also, by playing things over and over again as I do, I notice little bits that for some reason always attract me. That’s what I end up writing about. That’s why I write.